The believer’s union with Christ is one of the richest and most precious doctrines. It is a doctrine that can be misunderstood without the proper nuances, but the proper nuances still do not make the doctrine simple or easy to comprehend. It is incomprehensible–Christ is in us, and we are in Him. We strive to better appreciate this marvelous truth, which is what the Valley of Vision calls our “felt union” with Christ.
This union is precious to those of us in the reformed tradition. Puritan Thomas Goodwin said that union with Christ was the ocean into which all other doctrines run. John Murray writes that “union with Christ is the central truth of the whole doctrine of salvation.” The theme of union with Christ permeates John Calvin’s commentaries and his Institutes. And the description we read of union with Christ in The Marrow of Modern Divinity is comprehensive, breathtaking, and much too long to repost (but you can read it here).
Recently I’ve begun thinking about the ways our individual union with Christ influences how we view our corporate life together. This was originally provoked while reading the works of Thomas Manton where he writes [Works, 10:323]:
Mystical union is the union of believers with Christ the head, and with one another; with Christ the head by faith, and with one another by love. … This union of believers in the same body is often compared with the mystery of the Trinity; and it is elsewhere expressed by one body.
That is both a huge claim and a broad definition of union.
In the context Manton makes very careful and important distinctions between Trinitarian unity and the nature of our union with Christ. Nevertheless, these themes seem to be inseparable (see John 14:20–23; 17:11, 20–23).
Manton then further explains the connection between union with Christ and union with one another.
[The church] is a place full to this purpose, where all believers, in regard of their union with the head, and with one another, are set forth as one body, governed under one head, by one spirit, by which they increase and grow up, till they come to such a kind of unity as is among the divine persons.
But in what ways is the connection between our union with Christ and our corporate life together in the church expressed in the New Testament, if at all? If it is connected, what are the main ramifications?
With those questions, I began my search.
I cannot deal here with every ramification, and the ones I have here identified I cannot address at length. This post intends just to put forward a few themes for further study. I’ll begin with a few foundational points before moving into specific applications:
- Union with Christ means inclusion into His Body (the Church). This really gets at the heart of the main question: Is the theme of the believer’s union with Christ wed to the theme of union into the body of Christ (the Church)? Or are these separate and distinct unions? The simple answer is that it appears the unions are united in passages like 1 Corinthians 10:17 (see also 12:12–13 and Colossians 3:3 and 3:11–15). That is why I think Manton is correct in saying that “mystical union is the union of believers with Christ the head, and with one another.” Our personal union with Christ is the basis of our union into his body, the Church. Okay, so what are the consequences?
- Union with Christ is the foundation of our corporate solidarity and mutual ministry together. This is especially clear in the words of Romans 12:3–5.
- Union with Christ, and corporate solidarity, are displayed in the Lord’s Supper. I don’t think we have a clearer visual picture of our union with Christ than in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper (see Matthew 26:26–27 and John 6:41–56). With that in mind, the Lord’s Supper is where we show ourselves to be “one body” as we partake of “one bread” (1 Corinthians 10:16–17).
- Baptism is a symbol of our union with Christ and our union with all those who are in Christ. The NDT states, “Baptism signifies union with Christ in his body, the church, for to be ‘in Christ’ is to be one with all who are united to him.” See Galatians 3:26–28 and 1 Corinthians 12:12–13 for this connection.
- Union with Christ is the context of our corporate maturity and growth. We are growing up, growing up together, growing up together “in him.” See Ephesians 4:11–16 along with Colossians 3:12–17 (in light of verses 1–4).
- Union with Christ is the basis of our mutual dependence. We are united to Christ, we are one body. Therefore, we need one another. This unity in Christ showcases the diversity of gifts and our need for one another in 1 Corinthians 12:12–31.
- Union with Christ is the basis for corporate sexual purity. See 1 Corinthians 6:12–20.
- Union with Christ is the basis for church membership. In the context of church membership, John Piper writes: “becoming a Christian means being united to Christ, and union with Christ expresses itself in union with a local body of believers. It seems to us that in the New Testament, to be excluded from the local church was to be excluded from Christ” (see 1 Corinthians 5:1–5). Union with Christ and church membership are seemingly inseparable.
- Union with Christ is the foundation for corporate unity in the local church. Richard Baxter writes: “As their union with Christ the head and principle of their life is principally necessary, so unity among themselves is secondarily necessary, for the conveyance and reception of that life which floweth to all from Christ” (Works, 5:170). Clearly Baxter imagines union with Christ requiring corporate solidarity and it’s not hard to see how he came to this conclusion, given the NT passages above.
- Union with Christ is a basis for racial and social unity in the local church. In his New Testament theology George Eldon Ladd writes, “When we believe in Christ, we are made members of Christ’s body; we are joined to Christ himself and therefore to all others who in union with Christ constitute his body [note that Ladd here merges the personal union/corporate union themes] … Race does not matter; social status does not matter; by Spirit baptism all kinds of people are equally members of the body of Christ” (page 588).
This brief list merely suggests a few of the many ways in which our individual union with Christ provides us with a helpful context for better understanding our life together in the church. But I think that much work could be done on this topic.
As I continue to study the many facets of union with Christ I discover myself simultaneously being led deeper into ecclesiology, nearer to the communion of the saints, and closer to the heart of God’s plan for his Church. So I am not surprised when Michael Horton writes, “The communion of saints, in Calvin’s thinking, has its source in union with Christ” (The Christian Faith, 745). And I’m not surprised when Edmond Clowney writes, “Paul describes the church as the body of Christ because of its union with Christ.” It all makes sense. Our personal union with Christ is the basis for our life together.
The bottom line for me is this: In our union with Christ we discover the groundwork for our corporate life and solidarity. In union with Christ we find the source and purpose for our spiritual gifts, we become less inclined to favoritism and racial division, and we find the basis of our unity with other Christians in our church, our cities, and around the globe. These are just a few ways in which I think further study on our union with Christ will deepen our ecclesiology.
Ultimately, the life and vitality of the church is directly connected to the life of the Savior. Charles Spurgeon perhaps captured this point best in sermon #2653. I’ll close with a quote from it:
Union with Christ is essential to the life of his Church.
Men sometimes lose a, foot, or a leg, or an arm, or an eye, or an ear. It is very remarkable how a man may continue to exist after he has lost several of his limbs, but he cannot live if his head is taken away. Cut that off, and the decapitated body is dead in an instant.
So, brethren and sisters, the Church of God lives because Christ lives, and its life is entirely derived from him. If there were no Christ, there would be no Church; and if there is, anywhere, a body of professors without vital union to Christ, they are not a church. They may have the name of a church, but they are assuredly dead. The Spirit of God flows through Christ into the whole of his true Church, permeating every part of his wonderful mystical body.